Over the course of the last few years, I’ve had many people tell me that they have a great idea for a novel. Some say they’ll get around to it one day, some ask if I want to write it with them, some admit it will probably never get written. I’m often asked for advice on how to go about getting started. Getting started is always the hardest part, even for me, an author who’s written seven novels.
First you need to start gathering your thoughts on paper. Get a notebook and write headers on the top of several pages. Headers Like “Plot,” “My Main Character,” “Subplot,” “Other Characters.” Really it’s the process of organizing all those thoughts that have been rambling around inside your head. You think it will be easy to just sit down and write your book out without this step, but you’d be wrong.
- Why on paper and not on a computer or other device?
Don’t discount the effect of paper and pen. There’s something cathartic about writing with a pen or pencil that you’ll soon discover for yourself. I suggest a portable notebook. I use smaller ones that fit in my purse. Believe me, you’ll want to have it with you at all times and inspiration tends to strike in the most unlikely of places. I especially recommend you keep a pad and pen on your nightstand. How many times have I woken up in the middle of the night with a great idea and been too lazy to get up and write it down? … way too many times. And then I wake up in the morning thinking … didn’t I have an idea last night? But I can’t remember exactly what it was. Don’t be like me because it totally sucks.
Okay, let’s say you’ve started the above.
- So when do I get to start writing my novel?
After you have a decent idea of your plot and a detailed description of your main characters, their physical descriptions, likes, dislikes, past history, the flesh on their bones, it’s time to start your outline. For me, my outlines are bullet point outlines, plot points I need to hit in a specific order so that I tell the story properly. This outline will evolve a lot from the moment I start writing till I finally type “the end.” It’s not chiseled in stone, it will evolve as your story evolves, but it helps you keep your eye on the prize. It will be your guiding north star.
When you’re writing a novel, you need to feel as if you’re making headway, and being able to tick off another bullet point on your outline makes you feel as if you’re making progress and that in and of itself is encouragement to continue on. It is your light at the end of the writing tunnel.
- So now I’m writing … now what?
My suggestion to not lose your momentum going and keep from getting bogged down to the point you give yourself writer’s block is to XXX it. Huh? you’re asking out loud as you scratch your head. Yes, you read me right. When I’m writing out a scene and I come up to something that I’m not sure of, I xxx it, and go back to it later. I’ll give you an example. In my current project, I had a sentence that went something like this:
“Doc Gibbs came by this afternoon and said he’s worried about the new calf, thinks he may have come down with XXX and he wants to come back tomorrow and give him a TREATMENT.”
My novel takes place on a ranch in Texas. I’m from New York and live in Orlando. What do I know about Longhorn cattle? Nothing. If I stopped to do the research on what could be wrong with a calf and what they’d have to do to treat it, I’d never get a book written. I finished the first draft this week and spent a couple of days fixing the XXX’s and other issues like this. These are things that aren’t really important to the story so I don’t even bother to stop to dwell on them while I’m writing. I’ll have things like this: “After I order LUNCH ORDER, I handed her the menu back.” Don’t lose yourself in minutia. I have news for you … your first draft will suck. Get over it and know that you can always fix it in the editing.
Don’t expect perfection. If you do, you’re doomed before you start. Perfection is crafted from your first draft. Your first draft will have lots of issues that need fixing. I can’t stress enough that you need to leave expectations of “The Great American Novel” at the doorstep. All you can hope is that your first draft shows potential.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attack your first draft with gusto, it only means that if you agonize over every sentence, you’ll never get to THE END. You’ll get so discouraged by chapter two that you’ll never bother to finish.
- So I finally finished my first draft. No what?
Congratulations! The first thing I do is try to catch the easy things before I really dig deep. In my word document, I use the “Find” feature and look for things I know I commonly type wrong. Having just typed your novel, I’m sure you probably know what your typing foibles are. Mine are that for some reason, I tend to type an extra ‘ after the “t” in a contracted word. – didn’t’ – Don’t ask why, I have no idea why I do it. I also type “because” as “becuase”, transposing the a and u. I type “the” as “teh” a lot. Not to mention that I also have issues with tenses. I write in first person narrative and find that I can stray from writing in a past tense to a present tense. Example: “I take the book he hands me and smile.” When I really should have typed “I took the book he handed me and smiled.” Again, I have no idea why this happens. This is also when you go back and fix your XXX’s and Capped letter issues.
When you feel as if you have a good grasp on these kinds of issues, for me, this is when I print the first twenty or so pages and start to read. Reading on paper and not off a screen is very helpful to me. Maybe it won’t be for you, but I recommend you try. It’s another perspective, one that your reader will have, so it’s worth taking a step back to look through their eyes. I like to make hand written notes on paper then enter them on the word doc. In this first 20 pages you’ll start to see other issues you missed. After that just keep editing.
I usually read through, editing as I go, at least three times through the whole book. At this point, I email the doc to my Kindle and let the text to speech feature on my Kindle read my book to me. Believe me, you will find even more typos and issues. Hearing it out loud is going to blow your mind.
After I listen to it two or three times, I think my books are ready for someone else’s eyes. WARNING: Be careful who you give it to. I’ve had issues where you give it to them and a month later they haven’t even started it yet. Find someone who has the time to sit down read it now. Gently give them a deadline in which you’d like it back. I’d also provide them with a sheet containing a guideline of what you’re looking for. They are most likely not a professional editor and need your guidance here. Tell them you’re looking for typos, grammatical errors, inconsistencies in the plot, anything that confuses them or doesn’t make sense. Some people are naturally good editors, many are not. Your close family man not be your best choices. Don’t give it to someone who is just going to hand it back and say “That was lovely, dear.”
Once you get it back, incorporate what notations you received and thought made sense to change.
It would have taken me a decade to write my first novel if I hadn’t of set daily quotas on myself. 10 pages a day to start with. As the story gets written, it gets easier to write. By the end, my quota was 25-30 pages a day. If I didn’t meet my quota one day, the missing pages got added to the next days quota. For example, I write 8 pages today means I have to write 12 tomorrow. It was a mental way for me to stay on track. I increased the quota when I found it was too easy to meet and I was exceeding it.
- Don’t get married to anything in your novel!
I gave a short story I wrote to a friend to read/edit last week. She gave me back some good notes. One being that she thought the ending was too quick and she gave me a suggestion on away to prolong the plot twist. I thought about it, and she was right. I made a few modifications and it really flows much better now. If I’d been stubborn and thought the baby that was my story was perfect just the way any mother would think her child was, I’d have been holding it back from being all that it could be.
- What about all these fancy writing computer programs?
Don’t get sucked into the mentality that a computer program will help you write a book. People were doing it with feather quills and writing masterpieces of the English language long before the advent of the computer age. I use MS Word and do just fine. If you’re trying to write your first book, believe me, that is hard enough without tossing learning a new computer program into the mix. Concentrate on writing, not fiddling with the newest software. I promise you, the software isn’t going to write your book for you while you slumber at night.
Well, that’s my advice on how to get started. I could go on and on and on about the subject, and I’m sure I will in future posts.
Jennifer Geoghan, author of The Purity of Blood novel series and If Love is a Lie: A Partly True Love Story.
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